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Needs Functional Language Use & Speaking Practice

Currently, Duolingo is a fantastic program that I recommend to my peers, students, and colleagues (I'm an English language teacher).

There are currently two things that are really missing: Speaking practice and Functional Language Use.

Speaking Practice can be done by allowing users to record themselves and receive feedback from other native users. This will allow everyone to develop all 4 skills instead of just Listening, Reading and Writing.

Functional language use means language used with a purpose. Thanks to your website, I know how to say "Flies like candy" in Portuguese (Moscas gostam de doce.) but when would I need to use that sentence? Including "Menu Vocabulary," this site needs practical categories like "Ordering in a Restaurant," "Borrowing a Book from the Library," "Fixing your Computer," etc. This way, we can see how a typical exchange might go and apply the new language to an authentic situation that we might become involved in if we visit the country where the language is used.

That said, I do love this site for learning vocabulary. Thanks very much for such a great resource!

January 8, 2013



Thanks guys for the comments. For the devs, here is an example of how you can integrate Functional Language Use into the program. Start with a simple sample dialogue:


Sam: Hi. Bob: Hello. How are you? Sam: I'm fine, thank you. How are you? Bob: I'm fine. Are you busy Saturday? Sam: No, I don't have plans. Bob: Do you want to see a movie? Sam: I'd love to!

...then make questions based on the dialogue encouraging language use. Examples:


Bob: Are you _ Saturday?

a) funny *b) busy c) purple


Bob: Do you want to ____?

a) going shopping b) saw a play *c) see a movie


Sam: No, I don't have plans. Bob: _____ Sam: I'd love to!

user writes [Do you want to see a movie?]


Sam: Saturday you are busy?

a) busy are you Saturday? b) you are busy Saturday? *c) Are you busy Saturday?

Activities like these would be ideal after users learn and activate initial vocabulary in each proficiency area after the first couple vocabulary lessons.


I love the general idea, but they have sentence completion and gap fill questions in text books and on other sites already, and to be honest while they teach you they're a bit cheesy and contrived (you only need to know a bit of the language to work out what is right and you can just use elimination).

I think a better example would be to do the same exercises as we already do but with a couple of sentences of dialogue rather than just single sentences

e.g. "Bob: 'Hallo. Wie geht's dir?', please reply 'I'm fine, thank you.' to Bob in German"

or "Bob: 'Hallo. Wie geht's dir?' Sam: 'Es geht mir gut.' please translate" with two translation boxes, one for each person

or even just a list of replies to Bob's question and you have to "tick all suitable replies to Bob's question"


My contribution to this, in French:

Sam: Salut.
Bob: Bonjour. Comment vas-tu ?
Sam: ça va, merci, et toi ?
Bob: Très bien. Tu fais quelque chose samedi ?
Sam: Non, je n'ai rien de prévu.
Bob: Tu veux aller voir un film ?
Sam: Oh oui !


Bob: Tu es _ samedi ?
a) amusant *b) occupé c) violet

Bob: Tu veux ____?
a) aller faire les magasins
b) vu une pièce
*c) voir un film


Sam: Non, je n'ai rien de prévu.
Bob: _
Sam: Oh oui !
user writes [Tu veux aller voir un film ?]

Sam: Samedi tu fais quelque chose ?
a) quelque chose tu fais samedi ?
b) tu fais quelque chose samedi ?
c) Est-ce que tu fais quelque chose samedi ?


This is an idea from fluentinthreemonths.com , but I think it would be nice to have 'sentence linker' phrases. You know, basically the filler words and phrases people use to let conversation flow naturally. Examples in English would be stuff like : "you know" , "like", "I mean", and so on.


I like it, but you should put this in a new discussion =)


Absolutely agree with the functional language use part. Although I'm on a half way to finish the course in Spanish, I really have difficulties talking with my spanish-speaking friend. Just because I didn't learn much of everyday phrases, the ones used for setting the appointment, describing my plans etc.


Agree and perhaps a separate stream for people who are going to travel? For example if I go to Germany I dont care about knowing how to say elephants, I do care about knowing how to ask if this is the metro stop I want.


That's funny, because it's actually a inside joke in Germany that foreigners only know how to say "Wo ist der Bahnhof?" (where is the train station).


While this would be nice, I do not see much value. Nothing is better than a little immersion into the language and the culture.

A little background...I studied french 2 years in grammer school, 2 years in high school and 2 years in college. That was 30 years ago. 3 years ago I had to go to Paris for 2.5 weeks for work, by myself (I think 1 week would have been too short to have a lasting effect). During that time, something interesting happened in my head that is hard to explain. After a week of mental games trying to figure out what to say next(every waking moment), I stopped thinking in english and came up with blanks in french. My mind knew that it had encountered the word before, but could not locate the word or the usage in memory. I found I could understand the newspaper even though I couldn't remember the grammer. This primed my mind with a thirst to regenerate the vocabulary and grammer. Also, I began to understand how the french speaker will structure words into sentences, which is a quite a bit different than the english speaker.

At this point, all I want from this course is the vocabulary and the grammer. Maybe after completing the course (will be a while) practical conversation module may make sence, but then I think several trips to Quebec (our company has a factory there) or Paris for 2 weeks will be a strong reinforcement. Making the effort to talk to impatient frenchman who speak fast while I, as a foreigner, stumble over my words is stressful and exhausting, but it provides an opportunity for the mind to recognize how much more effort is required to obtain fluency. This, in by experience, is the foundation required for further language learning and fluency development.

All in all, this is a great place to learn a language. Its easy, the points system provides encouragement, the repetition provides vocabulary and grammer reinforcement, having friends who are learning provides the incentive to not be left behind, etc.

Thanks for a great website!


I agree to some extent. Your description of what happens when you are in the "alien" environment is similar to mine. However I must say I never got at that point in two weeks!. I have had several experiences, for instance I could "understand" Swedish after some time there without any lectures, but not to speak it at all, aside from say 100 words and some common expressions (and food!)

I am currently living in Germany and... it's all over again. In my native language I don't think about the grammar and I barely do in English (thus, it's getting poorer and poorer). This has taken me to the conclusion that I do not need the grammar, that I can get the patterns and that grammar is... too boring and I learn nothing useful. Say, knowing what is masculine of feminine does not help me asking for razor blades in a supermarket.

As everything with our minds, once we grill in a rule, it becomes natural, but it doesn't mean we do not think about it. Natives will tell you that something sounds odd, even if they understand. The learning process is to get that embed in the brain... and this makes grammar a necessary evil. (unfortunately). The right balance between practice and grammar, I have no idea, but I guess it depends on each person. I got brave with speaking German and then I could not learn more, simply as that, because the information I was being bombarded with was way too much for my base and I could not get any patterns. I learned grammar and I could make sense of what I wanted to say, but I got totally lost in a conversation. Now I understand much more and I am able to say a lot, but I have not enough practice to let it flow... so natives get frustrated because I speak like a tobacco vending machine.

Duolingo is helping me a lot on making the grammar internal and being quicker on learning. That is nice but, honestly I do not expect it to give me a giant leap because a language is also the culture and the every day. This makes me wonder if it is possible for Duolingo to take on day to day text. Currently many texts from Duolingo make reference to US culture, but why not taking some text from Germany. Short texts such as how does the train system work, how does the administration work and such would be great in my opinion. Then longer texts with news or articles about regions, news, politics, .... This would help many who are not in Germany to take it on (or any other country)

Regarding the conversations...There is two ways of looking at it: if you fill in gaps and expect the conversation to be as in the book. You are dead. That simple. I can make an example with the visit to the doctor. How does it work with the doctor? I already know it's the chap with the white coat and you tell him/her what is wrong. If you get a couple of simple conversations and get vocabulary related you have a big step, but you still do not know how it works! In my class we did the lecture in the book and then we talked about it, how to call, what are the normal thing... For natives seems stupid to talk about all this, because it is obvious, but you need it to get integrated. If you are not going to get integrated and this is too much hassle... why are you learning a language? It's a communication tool, it's not only words.

When you think in a language it's a great step and from then... it's easy, but you can't do that by learning in books or some sentences. It's way wider.


Living in Montreal, I can tell you that the french spoken here and the one in Europe are very different. As a matter of fact, many french tourists have a hard time understanding the french in this province.


You basically just described the site http://www.lingq.com and I hate that site. I find it boring and confusing and the humdrum conversations are boring and confusing to me and I lose interest. I'm not saying that they are bad things to learn, though, so don't get me wrong. I really like Duolingo the way it is, though, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

I have a German grammar book. I don't remember what the heck it is called (German Made Easy, I think) and in the beginning of the book it teaches you some German words through a conversation between some young man and his neighbor.

It goes something like this...

"Hi, Mrs.Smith."


"How are you?"

"I'm fine. How are you?"

At the end of the conversation it said, "You may think this story would be a lot more interesting if Mrs.Smith turned out to be a serial killer and had bodies hiding in her closet (or something like that) but right now we're just trying to teach you the basics.

At that point I set down the book because I couldn't stop thinking about how the story WOULD be more interesting if Mrs.Smith turned out to be a serial killer and why don't any language courses start off with interesting stories instead of boring, "Hi, how are you. I'm fine. Nice weather." stories.

Maybe I'm alone in this but I always thought Duolingo was great, partly because I like learning sentences like "Your bear drinks beer." and "I love you but not a lot." They are entertaining and hold my (short) attention.

The phrase "Flies like candy" might seem useless now but later you will be able to say flies, like, and candy, and you will be able to rephrase it into something meaningful. By the time you finish the Duolingo course I think you learn 200 words from it or that's what I've heard. It may be more. Especially, if you regularly translate the web documents and learn vocabulary from that.

I'm not saying that your ideas are bad or anything. I'm not trying to be negative, either.

If you want to learn the stuff to get around in the country of the language your learning I recommend Speak In A Week (it's a book and CD). It's $10 per week or $40 for the four week set but if you learn well by listening it's a good choice and they teach you basic conversation, ordering at a restaurant, and checking into a hotel all in the first week. My mom used it to learn Spanish and it was her favourite program.

I do recommend using more than one site to learn a language and some people learn better from different methods. I think if you are going to learn a language from the internet using a combination of websites and techniques is best.

To learn a language fully:

You need courses and Duolingo and LiveMocha are good for that. Some people might like LingQ and there is also babbel and busuu and probably others that I don't know about.

You need vocabulary and Memrise, Byki, and Anki are good for that.

You need practice and postcrossing and hipenpal and penpalpalace are probably good for that.

No course is going to be able to teach the language in its entirety and no course is going to satisfy everybody who takes it.

On the flipside, I do think it would really be a good idea for Duolingo to add more sections, including maybe a Conversations section. Ordering From A Restaurant or Getting a Hotel sections would be good, too.

I've always thought it would be interesting if all of the sentences that we learned in a unit added up to something (like a story) that we could read when we were done. Something interesting that would keep people wondering, "What's next?"

I do hope I didn't offend anybody with my thoughts and opinions or bore anybody with all my writing but I do hope that if Duolingo ever adds a Mrs.Smith who likes to have conversations that she has lots of dark secrets. >:)

(P.S I wrote this at four a.m. Please forgive me if it seems unorganized.)


LiveMocha utilizes the Community Language Learning (CLL) methodology; DuoLingo appears to utilize the Direct/Grammar Translation methodology (I know you learn Vocabulary with this site, it's just a name).

Task-Based Learning (TBL) might help this site out a lot. It encourages you not to learn language as-is, but to perform a task and have the new language learned support the successful completion of the task.

Problem here is, TBL needs both accuracy and fluency development and it's really hard to inject fluency development into online language learning systems without developing new infrastructure or hiring more staff. Currently DuoLingo has a cool way to develop accuracy that allows users to envision their goals and see progress happen quickly. The suggestion was to take DuoLingo's current system and re-tailor it focusing more on real-world applicability to have a shot at developing more fluency. Doing so will expedite the transition from the language-learning classroom to the environment in which the languages are used.

The words themselves aren't useless, they just need to be placed into more meaningful contexts. Instead of being able to say a stand-alone sentence and hoping that the context arises someday in which I can use it, learners need more autonomy by making the language functional instead of learning via rote drills.

DuoLingo hints at that by translating the web (real-world context) but since we're still having to directly translate the sentences that come up, opportunities for learner autonomy never really present themselves. An alternative may be to read a short paragraph and then create a title for it and have others vote on the best one. Or, look at the title and write a few sentences about it. Videos, cartoons, pictures -- also really great ways to elicit language with minimal context required. Translating the web seems to be a very ambitious (albeit futile?) goal for a language learning site...

However you slice it, you're going to see parallels with other websites because of the methodology the site's using and/or the task being done. As stated before, this is a great site and hopefully the community can help make it better (perhaps "meaningful" is a better word) for everyone. Thoughts?


You need courses and Duolingo and LiveMocha are good for that.

I like Duolingo a lot better than LiveMocha.

Some people might like LingQ and there is also babbel and busuu and probably others that I don't know about.

I've tried all these and none of them hold my attention.

You need vocabulary and Memrise, Byki, and Anki are good for that.

Anki is by far the best -- and great for learning all kinds of stuff.

You need practice and postcrossing and hipenpal and penpalpalace are probably good for that.

I think Fixoodle is good for that (lots of native Spanish speakers on there).

I think the value of children's cartoons can't be overlooked -- they are slowed down, teach good grammar, and have a really wide variety of content. Youtube makes them all accessible!


Yes! Children's cartoons are an unbelievably valuable tool in language learning. I can't believe I forgot to mention them.

When I originally studied German I used to watch Lauras Stern on Youtube everyday. I also liked Trotro Deutsch (because he is so easy for a beginner to understand.) and Bern das Brot. You can usually find a good list of children's shows in the target language on Wikipedia and then look them up on Youtube.

Another thing I liked to do, since Wizards of Waverly Place was my favourite show at time was I discovered that they had a German version of it (Die Zauberer von Waverly Place) and looked it up on Youtube. It was amazing how much watching my favourite show in the language accelerated my learning.


I think you make a good point -- if you can find a movie you know well in your native language and then see a dubbed version (cartoons are less annoying/noticeable in this regard), you can learn what things are said in similar situations. One problem sometimes with learning a language without immersion (definitely the best way to learn) is that you don't learn natural, situational language -- it tends to be contrived. But especially with a high quality movie, say "Toy Story" in a foreign language, everything is going to be natural, and you can learn how you would say things in a particular situation to get the same meaning across, but often not at all a direct translation of the original. Plus, if you like the original movie that much, you already know the vocab, so it is relatively easy to pick up on new words without having to look things up when you hear the same thing in the language you are learning.


Yeah, it's important to get the better quality shows and movies for immersion and animations really are easier to follow without the distraction of the awkward lip movements.

Another thing that helped me was watching a movie in English with Spanish subtitles. It's great for reading comprehension skills and if you are actively studying while learning the language you will notice the differences (and not be confused into thinking translations are word for word.)


Another site that I forgot to mention that is good for practice is Lang-8.com which is another site where you can makes posts in the language in something like a journal or diary and have them corrected by native speakers.


Yeah, Fixoodle.com is kind of like that except correcting other people's entries is less annoying (auto formatting) and corrections are done on the entire post instead of sentence-by-sentence (so a lot easier to digest with more natural corrections).


Another site that is similar to Duolingo is http://www.Populearn.com. It's run on donations. They have German, French, Spanish, and Italian. Parts of the lesson simulate conversations and you say things like, "How are you?" "I'm fine." "This is my friend." and "This is my boyfriend." "I'm from Canada." (different locations) and stuff like that. It's also a pretty good site and I would combine it with Duolingo.


the multiple choice is a great idea!


I completely agree with you on this and I would also add that there be more chances allowed on the tests that allow you to skip who sections of the lessons. I am at a near fluent level in learning German, yet I still make some mistakes from time to time. I think these tests need to be a little bit more forgiving.


You can practice both writing and conversation in any language with as many native speakers as you wish by signing up to www.mylanguageexchange.com. Find someone your own age, interests et cetera.


The problem with MLE is that you have to either pay or wait for gold members to respond to you. There are some pen-pal sites that are free where you can search by country and language. Getting a pen-pal is a little different from a language exchange but you can still learn the language.


Great suggestion. I think the stories can add more of the realistic conversation aspect. I’m hoping they create 5x more story content than the 14 sets I’m seeing. Never having been to this website, I wasn’t even aware of them until a couple of days ago. The speaking critique by native speakers idea would also be extremely helpful. Perhaps one could earn/spend credits critiquing and being critiqued. I realize it’s an obvious feature that other sites have, but still would be convenient to have it here. Re: other sites for conversation skill - I liked the realism and simplicity of yabla but found most of the videos had audio quality issues. Fluent university had recent, much better quality videos, but the cost was at least three times beyond what I’d ever consider. If anyone knows of any sets of ‘accurately’ subtitled French/Spanish/German/etc videos, and especially simultaneous dual language subtitles, I’d appreciate links. There’s something about observing how a person is actually speaking while also being able to refer to subtitles that adds to better comprehension than audio alone, for me anyway.

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